Humboldt and its Broncos received a nation’s grief. Now it’s their turn to heal. - Macleans.ca

Humboldt and its Broncos received a nation’s grief. Now it’s their turn to heal.

One year after the crash, both city and team are as resolved as ever to get past their cataclysmic moment. They just need a moment to take a breath.

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Kaleb Dahlgren now plays for the York University Lions hockey team. (Mark Blinch)

When Kaleb Dahlgren first had the “A” stitched to the front of his Humboldt Broncos hockey sweater in 2017, he understood it came with added responsibility. As the Broncos alternate captain, he would be a leader on the ice for his teammates, and off the ice for the community. That might mean staying a bit longer to autograph sticks for the kids who paid $5 to watch their hometown Saskatchewan junior hockey team play. Dahlgren launched Dahlgren’s Diabeauties, a diabetes advocacy program that brought him to local classrooms, where he told kids that living with diabetes hadn’t slowed his athletic pursuits. Throughout the hockey season, Diabeauties got free tickets to Broncos games, where they participated in the ceremonial puck drop and met with Dahlgren afterwards. In small-town Saskatchewan, where the Broncos are local celebrities, kind gestures like these go a long way.

Then, on April 6, 2018, the Broncos’ bus was en route to a playoff game in Nipawin, Sask., when it collided with a semi-trailer truck. Sixteen people died. Thirteen others were injured. Dahlgren suffered a puncture wound to his head, a skull fracture, multiple broken vertebrae and a brain injury. He was among the more fortunate—he would skate again. Countless lives were shattered at that intersection.

Dahlgren missed the funerals of his fallen Broncos as he lay in hospital. On April 27, the day he was discharged, his hometown of Saskatoon hosted the Country Thunder Humboldt Broncos Tribute Concert. Dahlgren had to miss that, too. (Doctor’s orders; it would be too loud.) But he wouldn’t miss out on the many events to follow.

The Broncos became a vessel of mourning, not only for Humboldt and the families most directly affected, but also for people around the world who felt connected to hockey, or those who were simply struck by such a senseless tragedy, or both. In a sport where players and coaches often pride themselves on keeping emotions in check, the Broncos family was called upon, over and over, to confront their pain in the most public of ways. Dahlgren was one of them. “I felt like it was my role to take it on,” he says. “I thought I’d take one for the team and be that leader.”

RELATED: ‘It was the last time we saw him’: an oral history of the Humboldt tragedy

He could not have foreseen what that honourable intention would entail. It began in May at the opening ceremony of the Memorial Cup, Canada’s major junior hockey championship, featuring an Eagles concert and a tribute to the Broncos. Then, remembers Dahlgren, “June hit me like a wave. It was one thing after the other.” The Saskatchewan Roughriders came to Humboldt for a practice and community event. A day later, Dahlgren flew to Washington for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, participating in a pre-game interview for NBC’s national U.S. telecast.

The next weekend, there was a Saskatchewan Rush lacrosse game, where Dahlgren and his teammate Jacob Wasserman were introduced as the “heroes of the game.” Next up, a handful of Broncos sat for five hours of interviews for a documentary film crew. Then came the NHL Awards night in Las Vegas, where Dahlgren let a TV crew follow him throughout the visit, thinking it would help give his teammates space from the cameras. After Vegas, it was straight to Winnipeg, where he and fellow Bronco Matthieu Gomercic joined Winnipeg Jets star Mark Scheifele at a hockey camp supporting the charity KidSport Winnipeg. Finally: back to Regina, where nearly a dozen Broncos attended the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ “Humboldt Strong” CFL game on June 30.

All the while, Dahlgren kept up his regular commitments, including two charity walks for the diabetes research foundation JDRF, for which Dahlgren is a national ambassador. There were birthdays for his grandpa and for him. “It got to the point where July was going to be my month, where I could let myself heal by myself,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it in the spotlight.”

It had been months since the tragedy and still there was a collective need—across Canada and around the globe—to know how the team, how this town, how these young men and their families were doing. The Broncos had come to represent every hockey player who ever laced up a pair of skates; every parent who watched their child board a bus for a day trip. They and their community understood that. They accepted it. For some, it was a way to honour the memories of the teammates and friends they lost on April 6.

But that’s an enormous burden for anyone, much less a 21-year-old, and Dahlgren, for one, suspects his busy calendar delayed his own grieving. “I was trying to give back—to help people mourn. I did it to help others heal.”

The same could be said for his team and its town, where 12 months later the signs of recovery are only starting to show. A new edition of the Broncos is excelling. The driver who caused the crash pleaded guilty to dangerous driving, a broken man who has—in some cases, at least—received the forgiveness of his victims’ loved ones. The media, but for its one-year updates, is no longer omnipresent.

Yet closure, if there can be such a thing, remains a long way off. After a year of receiving the grief of a nation—of the entire hockey-loving world—Humboldt and the Broncos are as resolved as ever to get past their cataclysmic moment. They just need a moment to take a breath.

The site of the crash, just south of Nipawin, is strewn with tributes to the victims (Mark Taylor)

On Broncos game nights, Jason Neville will drive to the Elgar Petersen Arena with his daughters.

Last year, they attended practically every home game together. This season, he just can’t.

Neville was the team’s assistant general manager, working alongside the Broncos coach and general manager Darcy Haugan. Neville wasn’t on the fateful bus trip to Nipawin last spring, but not long after the funerals, the Broncos decided they’d put together a team during the 2018-19 season. And since Haugan died in the crash, Neville needed to take the lead.

“The first thing I had to do [after the collision] was cancel our spring training camp at the end of April—which is usually a chance to get young kids on our radar,” he says. “But then we realized we still need to have a camp—and we need players who can play this year, not two years down the road.” He quickly set up a camp in Saskatoon.

The league held a dispersal draft for the Broncos so the team could add some players from rival teams with Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) experience. Without players of their own to trade, the Broncos offered “player development fees” (i.e., money) for players. “It was like an expansion team,” says former Broncos vice-president Randy MacLean. “When we announced, we had zero players eligible or medically cleared to return.”

Fortunately, both Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter—both injured on the bus—were rehabbing well and look poised to join the team for the season opener.

As great as their challenge seemed, the thought of building anything less than a competitive team for this town seemed too much to bear. “We didn’t want to go into this season, lay an egg and just be happy to be there,” says Luke Strueby, then head scout for the Broncos. Strueby and Neville, along with assistant coach Chris Beaudry, scoured the province for talent. They pored over hours of video footage. But when they came across potential future Broncos to sign, Neville made a point of warning them about the extra attention the team would face. Some potential recruits told Neville they couldn’t do it.

Billet families in Humboldt, meanwhile, wrestled with the question of whether to invite young Broncos into their homes again. Rene and Devin Cannon, at one point, thought they had lost all three of their billet sons from last season—Adam Herold, Logan Hunter and Xavier LaBelle. It was only revealed after a community vigil that LaBelle was, in fact, still alive; there had been a misidentification. The other two young men recently living under their roof, however, had been killed.

The Cannons have always been proud to say they’re from Humboldt. They still are—especially after seeing the town do great things in the aftermath of the tragedy. Yet on a summer vacation to B.C., when people asked where they were from, they found themselves hesitating before answering. “It became a decision to say ‘Saskatchewan’ or ‘Humboldt,’ ” Rene says. “Not revealing ourselves as being from Humboldt in those few moments was our way to take a little bit of separation—a breath from it. It was our way of giving our kids a break from talking about it.”

RELATED: Humboldt Broncos families on their “tears of anger” and the healing process

The Broncos organization, however, would not take a break—or even a year off. The people of Humboldt needed hockey. It was the next step in the healing process, they believed, and they were determined to make it happen.

The Cannons decided to open their homes again to several incoming Broncos players, and Devin returned to his regular spot up in the media box as the team’s PA announcer, starting with a season opener featuring a lengthy tribute to last year’s team. Devin called out the names of the dead as each banner was unveiled: Glen Doerksen. Brody Hinz. Tyler Bieber. Dayna Brons. Mark Cross. Darcy Haugan. Adam Herold. Stephen Wack. Jacob Leicht. Conner Lukan. Jaxon Joseph. Evan Thomas. Logan Hunter. Logan Schatz. Logan Boulet. Parker Tobin. “It was something I needed to do,” Devin says. “I needed to say their names one more time—as my closure, in a sense.”

Neville was at the rink that day. He was part of the team’s second game, too, which required an emotional bus ride to Nipawin to face the team the Broncos were on their way to play on April 6. “That first weekend was very important for me,” he says, “and, probably selfishly, [being there was] more for my healing than for the team.” But then Neville stepped away from the team. The man who led the Broncos rebuild needed a break.

Strueby was promoted to take over assistant GM duties, and after a couple of months off, Neville signed on as a scout with the major junior Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League. But he soon realized he didn’t like going to the rink. Not like he used to. “It used to be my place I went to recharge and reflect,” he says. “Now it represents something else. I have to figure that out.”

So he left the scouting job. These days, the closest he comes to Humboldt Broncos games is listening on the radio. If the team’s playing at home, he’ll drop his daughters at the rink and pick them up afterwards. One day, he says, he’ll buy himself a ticket and go in. He has no idea when that day will come.

Brayden Camrud and his mostly new Humboldt Broncos teammates prepare for an SJHL game in January 2019 (Mark Taylor)

It’s past the midpoint of the hockey season, on a freezing January night, and these days you can get a seat close enough to the Broncos bench in Elgar Petersen Arena to see the plays assistant coach Troy Smith is drawing up on the whiteboard between whistles. Back in September, when 2,000 people crammed into the arena for the team’s season opener, and TSN broadcast the game across Canada, the Broncos could have sold out any sports venue in the country. Tonight, even on the town’s “Minor Hockey Day,” the Broncos have drawn a modest but respectable 800. And that’s just fine with Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench. “After the home opener, it was nice to come to a regular hockey game, like tonight,” he says. “I heard from some parents who live here that they didn’t have a chance to grieve because there was such a focus on our community.”

Muench, a long-time Broncos season ticket holder, wants to be clear: the city is extremely grateful for the continuing support. He speaks with amazement about how some Canadians, unsure of how to send donations securely online, would mail cheques to city hall or even Muench’s home address. They’d write in the dollar figures and leave the “pay to the order of” line blank, trusting the mayor would get the money into the right hands. And he did.

The funds from the GoFundMe campaign, more than $15 million, have since been allocated—the families of the deceased would receive slightly more than $500,000 each; the survivors slightly less.

The rink, meanwhile, has been all but emptied of the gifts sent to the team in the aftermath—hockey sticks, flags, hockey sweaters. The local art gallery has them on display, purposefully locating them on the second floor of its building. That way, Humboldt locals can visit the main floor of the gallery without having to relive the tragedy. A Broncos-themed dream catcher hangs steps away from a personal letter from Prince William. And then there are the quilts. If the curator exhibited one quilt each day, it would take nearly 10 years for all 3,500 sent by well-wishers to be displayed. (All but one quilt, which remains in the gallery, have been given out to community members.)

Back at the Elgar Petersen Arena—named after the town’s unflagging hockey volunteer, who died at 82 only months after the bus tragedy—Muench says “it’s an escape for a lot of people to get back to the rink and watch the team.”

Fans mill about with beers in hand, chatting about how the Broncos have won six of their past eight games and are making a charge for first place in the division. There’s a lone TV camera to stream the game on HockeyTV.com, and a radio announcer for those listening on Bolt FM. At certain moments, it’s like any SJHL game. But that changes every time Patter and Camrud charge off the bench. “You don’t always notice players when they step on the ice,” says Jamie Brockman, the newly appointed president of the team. “With these two, you do.”

Indeed, somehow, their presence seems to transcend the action on the ice. Their names adorn banners hanging from the rafters honouring the 16 who lost their lives and the 13 survivors—a permanent reminder that even in this hallowed place, in this hockey-mad country, some things are more important than the game.

The Broncos are clinging to a 3-2 lead late in the third period when Patter softly corrals a puck and fires a wrist shot perfectly into the top corner, ensuring the win for his team. He spins and glides backwards, waving his hands in the air, inviting his teammates to come in for a hug. The crowd is on its feet.

Kevin Garinger, director of education of the Horizon School Board and former Broncos president. (Mark Taylor)

Kevin Garinger didn’t feel like he deserved a standing ovation. It was actually starting to make him uncomfortable.

It was late April, and Garinger, who was then the Broncos president, was the guest speaker at a memorial event in Lumsden, Sask. He was there to talk about Mark Cross, the late Broncos assistant coach.

Garinger had become the most public face of the Broncos after the tragedy—standing before every camera for interviews about the accident, about the GoFundMe donations, about the great memories of those who died.

Still, he figured if anyone was worthy of their applause, it was Cross. The event went well: his words were warmly received and everyone was there to offer support. But after the speech, he says, “I left right away—I couldn’t be around people anymore. I felt sick. And that sounds terrible, but that’s how I felt. I don’t deserve any of this.”

It was a feeling born of attaining unwanted celebrity under awful circumstances. And celebrity is undeniably the right word. At a baseball game in Pittsburgh, a group of Pirates fans spotted Garinger in his seat, even though he was wearing no Broncos gear, and came to tell him the impact the tragedy had on their city. While Garinger was driving his black SUV through Virginia, a police officer pulled him over saying there were reports of an impaired driver in that make of car. “Wasn’t me,” Garinger replied. After examining Garinger’s driver’s licence, the cop came back to the window and said he recognized the name, and asked: “How are the people doing in Humboldt?” They talked by the side of the road for 15 minutes, the cop explaining the impact the Broncos had had on his Virginia community.

“It’s one of the hard things, you lose your anonymity in it all,” Garinger says. “But I’m also grateful that people have been able to heal through things that were said. The big thing is you speak from your heart and let them know who these people were.”

Garinger stepped down as Broncos president over the summer. The break allowed him to focus on the doctorate he’s working toward, on his new granddaughter born this summer, and on his day job.

Sitting in his office at the Horizon School Division, where he is CEO and director of education, Garinger is more than happy to talk operating deficits, building repairs or financial assets. But his office is full of mementoes, like a painting behind his chair depicting him and Cross, smiling.

“There are times when you get lost in loss,” he observes. “You have to work through that. I’ve tried to remove myself [from the Broncos] as much as possible. And I’m grateful for other people taking that on so I can step away and focus on other aspects of my life.”

He’ll still get a shoulder tap from passersby asking how he’s doing, or for updates on the progress of the survivors. “Because they care,” he says. “It’s not about gossip. They genuinely felt like they knew these kids.”

And Garinger won’t shy away from talking about them. “They didn’t deserve what happened,” he says, “but they deserve absolutely everything you could do to say who they were. Shout to the world about how great these people are.”

Camrud directs his eyes mostly toward the ground. His only request is that he not be asked about the accident. It’d be nice to talk about something else.

Ask him about the team’s Herculean efforts to rebuild a team and he’ll say he knew the Broncos would be put back together. “That’s how it works,” Camrud says. “If something’s broken, you fix it.”

And so Camrud, who suffered a concussion but no broken bones in the accident, was back on the ice within a couple of months to prepare for the new season. He made his rehab goal to play in the season opener, but first he had some places to go.

Camrud attended nearly every funeral. He was there at the Humboldt Broncos tribute concert in his hometown of Saskatoon—and on stage for the NHL Awards night in Las Vegas as the league paid tribute to his team—and notably his coach, Haugan.

While it was cool to interact with some NHL superstars he admires, Camrud says, “it wasn’t anything I was looking forward to. We knew why we were there.”

He does, however, say it was good to have all the guys together again—away from home for a couple of days—and to see the world still rallying behind them. He opted to skip other events like the CFL and lacrosse games. “I was just exhausted. And I wasn’t really eating,” he says. “It was taxing, talking to people all the time, being physical and giving out hugs. It was hard, emotionally.”

The prospect of the season was daunting. He and Patter had a slew of new teammates to get to know. (Tyler Smith, who was also injured in the crash, made his Broncos return in November, then stepped away after several weeks.) The entire Broncos coaching staff was new as well.

In the days leading up to the opener, Camrud thought he was going to be okay. “But the night before the game, I had an absolute meltdown,” he says. “I was on the phone with my dad for two hours. I talked to him and didn’t get much sleep. It was such a big game because there were so many people watching and I wanted to showcase my hockey abilities to set me up for future endeavours. If I could make the NHL one day and honour these guys, that would be incredible.”

Looking back, he thinks he did okay. It would have been nice if he could’ve scored, he says, or if they had won.

“The best medication you can get is just going on the ice,” says Broncos interim head coach Scott Barney, talking about the first game of the season. “Those players played great. We didn’t win, but the players played great. It was good for the community.”

But for some, the extra attention on Humboldt took its toll. Nathan Oystrick, hired as team’s first head coach and general manager after the accident, mutually parted ways with the Broncos days after Christmas. Oystrick cited “extreme stress and constant pressure of working with the organization” in announcing his departure via Twitter. “I gave them everything I possibly could and am proud of their performance, and mine, this season.” His departure became national news, a reminder of the microscope on the Broncos.

Now, in late January, Camrud is the team’s second-leading scorer. On the previous night, he’d potted the overtime winner against the Notre Dame Hounds. Despite a three-hour bus ride home, the team couldn’t sleep in this morning because they had a game-day morning skate. They’re playing the Hounds for a second time in as many nights. Camrud says he plans to head home and nap; he’s had a tough time sleeping of late.

It’s less than 48 hours until the start of the sentencing hearing for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, the truck driver at fault for the accident. Unprompted, Camrud offers some thoughts.

“I thought about it a lot before. I don’t think of it as much now, because I just get sad when I do,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s an accident. I don’t think that guy was intentionally going out to hammer a bus. It’s just super-unfortunate circumstances. Everybody will ask for a while: why us? There are accidents every single day. It was just another one and, unfortunately, was part of our team.”

Just as Camrud is ready for the interview to end, he takes a final question: what’s he looking forward to right now?

He looks up and smiles. “The Bachelor, on Monday.” Apparently, it’s a bit of a Broncos tradition.

Suddenly a teenager again, Camrud can’t stop talking about how he “hate-watches” the reality-TV show, in which a house of young women vie for the love of one eligible bachelor. “If in real life I was dating a girl, and then dating another girl—and then I had three girlfriends, they’d all say: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ” Camrud says. “But on the show, you get to pick 30 women and make out with all of them, and then pick one to fall in love with over a couple-of-months span. That does not work!”

The show does, however, “give the boys an excuse to get together and have a few pops,” Camrud says. “Watching The Bachelor with the boys is a really good time.”

For the first time in the conversation, Camrud lets out a laugh.

Christina Haugan arrives at the sentencing hearing (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

An RCMP officer sits down 20 rows back inside a makeshift courtroom in Melfort, Sask., hunches over and starts to cry. Locals with no connection to the Broncos are shedding tears, too. Journalists, between scribbling notes, reach for tissues from their pockets.

And a glance across the room reveals that Sidhu—the truck driver who could have spared all this crying today and every day for the past 10 months, if only he hadn’t run a stop sign—is wiping away his tears.

They’re all bearing witness as mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, girlfriends, billet parents and friends take turns to struggle through victim impact statements—roughly 90 are either read aloud or presented in court over the course of three days—for Sidhu’s sentencing hearing.

“There are days when the unjustness and sadness are definitely still there, but I have been forgiven for things when I didn’t deserve it, so I will do the same,” says Christina Haugan, widow of the late Broncos coach and general manager, as she looks at Sidhu. “If you ever want to know about my husband Darcy Haugan, you ask me, because there isn’t one person that isn’t better off in this world having known him.”

When Scott and Laurie Thomas were asked to write a victim impact statement about the loss of Evan, they instead wrote their only son a letter. “Mom and I cry every day,” Scott reads. “I had a good cry the other day when I saw an old clip of Toy Story. It was the part where Buzz showed up in Woody’s room for the first time and Buzz was trying to convince everyone he could fly. I remember how much you loved Woody. You were so much like him. A kind leader, always looking out for everyone else. Kind of goofy. We watched Toy Story so many times when you were little I bet I could still recite every line.”

Scott ends by saying he no longer fears his own mortality, “as I have to believe that I will meet you somewhere on the other side.”

Each break and adjournment is an opportunity for the grieving families to catch up. Sometimes, they’ll let out a smile or a laugh, but it is only a brief respite, as the courtroom beckons again. And not everyone can suppress their anger.

“We have not buried him yet,” Russ Herold said of his son, Adam. “When we recently returned home from a trip, I took his urn, set it on my lap and cried as I showed him pictures from our trip. Commenting to him about places we had been together as a family. Do you have any idea what it is like to hold your six-foot-two, 200-lb. athletic son on your lap like I did when he was a baby? Only now he is in a can.

“You took not only one of the loves of my life, you took away my grandchildren and crushed my dreams of passing on the family farm to my son one day,” Herold told Sidhu. “My days are now blank and empty, as I hope yours will be.”

Sidhu has already pleaded guilty, sparing the families a lengthy, emotional trial. But with the victim impact statements, rarely have families ever had their mourning so publicly on display—even if cameras aren’t allowed in the courtroom. They veer during their submissions from anger to unbearable sadness. But the stories they tell are ones of love.

“I don’t know how much of an effect this will have on the sentence,” says Scott Thomas in an interview. “To me, this is more for our healing process. I’ve always said I don’t care whether it’s one day or 10 years. We have no control over it.”

Some of the families say they hope to see changes to trucking and bus safety regulations—standardized training programs for long-haul truck drivers and mandatory seat belts on coach buses, for example—which seem the only concrete form of redress available.

On the third day of the hearing, in the final impact statement, former Broncos assistant coach Beaudry—who wasn’t on the bus with the team, but instead followed in his own vehicle—tells Sidhu how he had to help identify the bodies and how he can’t return to the rink to coach anymore. He tried.

Yet he tells Sidhu that he forgives him, and offers a piece of advice: “Don’t let your life be wasted. From today on, do as much good as you possibly can moving forward. Be compassionate, love, and most importantly, forgive others as you have been forgiven.”

Laurie and Scott Thomas hold a portrait of their late son, Evan. (Mark Taylor)

Scott and Laurie Thomas welcome guests with a warm handshake. On the day before they deliver their victim impact statement in court, they’re prepared to let outsiders into their Saskatoon home—as they have been throughout the year.

“It hit everybody in the country so hard, I felt a bit of an obligation to let people feel how we’re doing, because they were grieving with us,” Scott says. “I’ve said from the start: anybody who wants to ask about Evan, I’ll talk about him.”

Laurie, though, has felt overwhelmed at times—like when she resolved to write a thank you to every person who reached out with messages of support. “But they kept coming,” she says. “From family, friends, the people of Saskatoon, Humboldt, the province, Canada. We couldn’t keep up.”

Evan is everywhere here. His game-worn Broncos sweater, complete with stitched-up tears and traces of blood, occupies a custom frame the family was given. A stunning painting of 16 butterflies, representing the 16 lives lost in the accident, rests on the wall. A portrait of Evan on his graduation day sits casually on a chair at the dining room table—so he’ll be with them for every family meal. Cards, signs and mementoes are in every corner of the living room.

But there’s also a sign on the front lawn: “for sale.” It was a great home, Scott wrote in the letter he read in court. It’s just too hard now without Evan. To look around is to understand why. The height markings on the wall. The video games. The bedroom where, most nights, Evan’s sister or mom crawl into his bed to sleep—still trying to figure out how to move forward without him.

You can even see Evan on Scott, whose body was free of tattoos prior to the bus crash, but is now a canvas of memories he’ll never let go. Evan’s graduation picture is inked into his left arm. On his right bicep is the young man’s last signature, taken from the guest book at his billet home in Humboldt. Evan’s handprint, taken from the funeral home, which rolled his hand in ink, is now tattooed forever on Scott’s forearm.

“Every time I meet someone new and shake their hand,” Scott says, “Evan’s hand is there too.”